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My Ladye Hath A Sable Coach

Updated: Apr 16

One of the stories, and indeed songs, featured in Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor involves the infamous Lady Mary Howard. Hers is a fascinating tale, marrying fiction and fact in the most macabre of ways. I'll try and do it justice here.




Born into great wealth in August 1596, Mary Fitz was only nine when her father John died at his own hands inside an inn at Twickenham. There are enough tales about that dissolute aristocrat to fill a book of its own, but the fact he was there to face justice for the crime of murdering a friend provides some insight to his character. A rascal in every possible way, nobody in Devon mourned his violent passing.


Sir John had been cruel to his wife and only child, but so too were the strange laws and conventions of the time. Sir John's widow could not inherit his estates, so his young daughter was made a ward of the Crown, whose guardianship was sold to the highest bidder. The winner was the Earl of Northumberland, who wanted her for his brother Allan. Allan Percy owed the Earl money, which he hoped to see repaid from the Fitz estates in Devon and Cornwall.


Allan was 31 and Mary 12 when they married. It was decided they would live apart until she came of age. The relationship therefore remained unconsummated by the time Allan died of a chill when out hunting, three years later. Mary then met a man her own age, Thomas Darcy, and the pair eloped. However, he died within a matter of months.


Twice-widowed and still only sixteen, Mary was then wed to Sir Charles Howard, the fourth son of the Earl of Suffolk. Once again, it was Mary's wealth the bridegroom's family sought and theirs was not a happy match. For one thing, their son George was born after the pair were estranged for a full 18 months. It was widely believed that George's true father was a local servant Mary fell in love with.


Two legitimate daughters were born but only one appears to have survived. Then in September 1622, nine months after George appeared on the scene, Sir Charles himself made a grave his final resting place. A fourth marriage took place, to the wicked Sir Richard Grenville. It was no more successful than her previous three.


Sir Richard fought with his wife for control of her money. His cruel and violent behaviour saw him thrown into jail. Although they both wanted a divorce, none was granted by the time his life ended in 1658.


By the time Mary herself passed away in 1671, her son George had also died.


Mary Howard, Ghost, Dartmoor, Folklore, Legend
Lady Mary Howard

It didn't take long before local people began slandering Mary Howard. Four husbands and two children had died, and that tragic run of ill fortune couldn't be blamed on poor luck alone! The apple never falls far from the tree and Mary's own father was a murderer, guilty of killing at least two men whilst drunk. According to the local people, Mary was guilty of being the same.


This is why Mary Howard's spirit can never find peace. Punished by divine justice, she is condemned to an eternity of suffering and penance.


Every night, at the stroke of midnight, her ghost is forced to journey from all that remains of her estate at Fitzford Manor in Tavistock. It travels from the old gatehouse in a carriage made from the bones of her murdered husbands and children, pulled by a team of skeletal horses, and driven by a headless horseman.


She is taken in this ghastly carriage to the ruins of Okehampton Castle, another property she owned when alive. Once there, she is given an impossible task to perform.


Lady Mary Howard must pluck the castle mound clear of grass, one blade at a time, before the sun rises. Only if she succeeds will she finally rest. Because she never can, she is doomed to repeat this chore until the end of time.


Like all folktales, there are many different versions of the tale. One says a fire-breathing black hound runs beside the carriage. Another claims that anyone who sees the lady's obscene retinue will be dead by the morning.


Fitzford Gatehouse, Tavistock
Fitzford Gatehouse During the 19th Century

Okehampton Castle by Turner
'Okehampton, on the Okement' by Turner. Copyright The Tate Gallery

Sabine Baring-Gould had many hobbies. One was collecting folk songs, which he published in 'Songs Of The West' (1891). Collecting the fragments of a ballad about Mary's ghostly journey from various mouths, he pieced together the following song.


My ladye hath a sable coach, And horses two and four; My ladye hath a black blood-hound That runneth on before.


My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes, The driver hath no head; My ladye is an ashen white, As one that long is dead.


“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith, “Now pray step in and ride.” I thank thee, I had rather walk Than gather to thy side.


The wheels go round without a sound, Or tramp or turn of wheels; As cloud at night, in pale moonlight, Along the carriage steals.


“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith, “Now prithee come to me.” She takes the baby from the crib, She sits it on her knee.


“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith, “Now pray step in and ride.” Then deadly pale, in waving veil, She takes to her the bride.


“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith, “There’s room I wot for you.” She wav’d her hand, the coach did stand, The Squire within she drew.


“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith, “Why shouldst thou trudge afoot?” She took the gaffer in by her, His crutches in the boot.


I’d rather walk a hundred miles, And run by night and day, Than have that carriage halt for me And hear my ladye say—


“Now pray step in, and make no din, Step in with me to ride; There’s room, I trow, by me for you, And all the world beside.”


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